How to Fix Panels at SXSW (and Everywhere Else)

Take it from someone who produces live radio and an on-stage interview show: Ditch the moderator.
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It’s peak bad panel season.

Yes, you could fill your year-round calendar with alumni events, public library discussions, and JCC chit-chats—but right now, at SXSW Interative in Texas, it’s peak bad panel season.

Hundreds of thought leaders are descending on Austin to sit in horizontally arranged groups of three to five, on a slightly elevated stage, to hold wireless mics and discuss their trade. A sampling of the panel discussions on tap: “Not Dead Yet: How Technology Is Saving Poetry” “Social Media: Strategies That Work & Future Trends” and “Are We Smarter than the Dinosaurs?” This latter one will presumably be a panel that slowly circles in on the conclusion “Um, yeah, I’m pretty sure.”

I can walk out on the shortest of limbs to declare that: chances are, they will be boring. And the reason they will be boring is because they will be rote. And the reason they will be rote, is because of the moderator.

In panel discussions, the moderator too often provides a structured crutch on which the entire group can lean its boringness. To save us from boring panel discussions, first banish all the moderators.

Otherwise, this will happen:

The first four minutes will be spent by the moderator asking a series of rhetorical questions to “set the stage” for the ensuing conversation. The next 25 minutes will be taken up by the panelists, in successive order, giving a “brief bio” of their entire career arc. They will pad this with a charming story about how they first met one of the other panelists—perhaps on a panel at some other conference. There will be two or three humblebrags each.

The first question will be directed at one of the panelists, and will take about three minutes to answer. In the name of equal time, the moderator will offer each other panelist a chance to respond, and about 70% of what they say will be a reiteration that they agree with what the first panelist said.

The moderator has written an initial question for each panelists, so this process repeats. Initial question to A, with a response from BCD. An initial question for B, with a response from CDA. C gets a question, DAB get to chime in. And so on and so on and then … Oh, wow, look at that, we’re almost out of time. But I guess we can take a few questions from the audience.

You know the drill. What is supposed to be a panel discussion has been reduced to a series of successive, autonomous paragraph modules, each containing a line or two of insight, but none actually building on the other. It’s like opening your box of legos, spreading them out on the floor, then heading to the cocktail reception in the lobby.

The fundamental problem is that we’ve come to accept the inherent boring-ness of the panel discussion. The panelists have participated in dozens, and likely sat through hundreds. Audience members know this too, and most quickly take to their smart-phones to multitask. Nowhere does such a large collection of smart people accept such intellectual mediocrity. When it comes to paneling, “that went okay” is just fine, and there is no incentive to do better.

So here’s an idea: Get rid of the moderator entirely. For your next panel discussion, only have panelists. Force your smart, committed, verbose guests into a high-wire act without the net of the moderator. Get rid of the old hub-and-spoke format, and make them engage with both each other and the ideas.

On the radio show I help produce for WNYC, we have one of the best hosts in the world. His name is Brian Lehrer. But our show still sings when our audience is talking to each other. We’ve done entire shows just letting callers take over. During Ask Roulette, a live show and podcast I host in New York City, strangers come on stage and ask each other questions about all sorts of topics. Inevitably, I find that they are engaged, charming, smart, and respectful. And these are just “regular folks.”

“Wait,” you ask—“What if there’s a heated issue? Who will referee between the two sides?” This is a completely valid question, to which I reply “Well, are you hosting a debate?” Are you hosting a debate? Maybe you should be hosting a debate. In which case, by all means, have someone to work the ring. Seriously, you should try to host a debate.

But the vast majority of panel discussions are not debates. They are spirited conversations among equally-interested stakeholders, usually professional peers. Any disagreement that would break out in this format is not anything that your average knowledgeable, passionate person can’t self-police. And if not having a moderator forces you to think a little harder about who you invite, rather than DMing the easiest “get” in your twitter follows, is that such a bad thing?

So I implore you: Blow up your next panel discussion. Ditch the moderator, let the participants figure it out, and you may actually get people to stop playing Flappy Bird and pay attention.

 
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Jody Avirgan is a producer for WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show and hosts the bi-monthly live-conversation series Ask Roulette.

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